Backstage pass


TARA BRADYwatches a recording of RTÉ’s ‘Sunday Miscellany’

PLAYWRIGHT BERNARD FARRELL provides a Proustian rush inspired by lifting up old lino. Gerard Smyth anticipates Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday in verse. Mary O’Malley gives a poignant account of life with her cats. It’s just another day at the coalface for Clíodhna Ní Anluain, the energetic curator of RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany.

“We have 52 programmes a year – plus a St Patrick’s Day special – so we have to have variety,” she says. “We might record a few pieces at a time like we’re doing with Mary today, but they’ll be broadcast across different programmes. The writers on the show all see things in different ways. They’re all at different stages of their lives and careers. They trust me with their writing. They tell me, and ultimately the listeners, things about their lives.”

Since 1968 this eccentric repository for essays, poems, fragments, songs and aural doodles has defined and cushioned the weekend for listeners. Rarely trumpeted and snuggled away in a Sunday morning slot, the show has, nonetheless, proved sneakily iconic. Irish brides wanting a skip in their wedding march frequently request its familiar theme music. “When that sort of thing happens, it shows you are out there,” Ní Anluain says. “I think for most people it’s a kitchen show. I’ve always liked that about it. It’s just on. It was there in the background when I was growing up. I loved that you would hear things accidentally as you passed by.”

Content is supplied by literary figures and, she says, by “doctors and mothers and bakers, by anybody who feels they have something to say.” Previous guests have included Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Benedict Kiely and Seán Ó Faoláin. A recently published arrangement of writings, Sunday Miscellany: A Selection from 2008-2011, has entries from John Banville, Peter Murphy, Joe O’Connor, Kevin McAleer and Rita Ann Higgins.

“The unique thing about the show is that there is no presenter, so regular contributors become the regular voice,” she says. “We all get to know them. Sarah Kelly is probably the most regular. May Leonard would be too. Sheila Marr. Catherine Foley. Denise Blake from Donegal. Gerry Smyth will come in with a group of poems. Mary O’Malley is quite the regular. The poem this morning is the first she has recorded, even though she’s a poet. Because the pieces are 700 words, it’s a place where writers might try something a bit different. They’ll approach me and say ‘I think I have a Sunday Miscellany coming on’.”

How might one recognise such a sensation? Subjectively, we know a Sunday Miscellanyditty when we hear it. Objectively, it’s a tricky thing to quantify. What divides stream of consciousness from diatribe or regular old radio banter, we wonder? “It’s a busy old world we live in,” says the producer. “I like to stay out of it, but it’s important to be informed. We are coming into a month of visitors to Ireland in Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth. We have pieces to mark those but they have to be Sunday Miscellany pieces. I have a lovely one about the earliest visits of the English royals, giving a historical perspective and showing the complexities of the relationships between the English and the Irish. For Obama, I have a very nice piece from Denise Blake, whose parents came from Donegal but emigrated to Ohio. She’s talking about when her mother became a US citizen. She wore a lovely emerald green Jackie Kennedy suit. It revisits how it was fantastic to be an American.”

In a sector dominated by precise demographic targets, Sunday Miscellanyremains an anomaly. The most recent figures show a 7 per cent gain for the 43-year-old programme. A total of 233,000 listeners currently tune in every week, making it the 13th most popular show in Ireland. It’s tempting to attribute these gains to Ní Anluain’s innovations as a producer. Under her seven-year tenure, this quaint corner of the broadcasting schedules has blossomed into a multimedia brand, a lively feature at writers’ festivals, and an occasional attraction at the National Concert Hall.

“When I came back from maternity leave in 2007, I felt I wanted to be doing something more,” she recalls. “I contacted Listowel Writers’ Week and asked if they might be interested in doing something as part of the programme. Sunday Miscellany had never been live. It had never had an audience, or live music. We’re shortly returning for our fifth time. We did a fabulous one from the Pearse Museum recently. We had a wonderful time at the National Concert Hall. Working with other people shares the responsibility and the adventure of doing it. And it’s a great challenge to widen it out without losing that unique identity.”

For all the tweaks, the charms of Sunday Miscellanyare entirely organic. “My day started with walking the children to school and my boy asking me how does the bird stay standing on the electric wire?” she says. “And I thought: ‘Now, that’s the beginning of a Miscellany piece’.”

Sunday Miscellany: A Selection from 2008-2011, edited by Clíodha Ní Anluain, is published by New Island (€17.99)